High-Density Suburban Renewal
The Washington Post. Washington, D.C.: Sep 3, 2002. pg. A.01
At the end of this month the quiet Fairfax County communities of Dixie Hill, Centennial Hills and Legato Acres will begin to be wiped out. Gone will be the ramblers, Colonials and split-levels built on generous wooded lots from the 1950s through the '70s. Gone too will be the trees, playground, wells and septic systems. Even some of the streets will exist only in the memories of the people who raised families here.
DixCenGato, as the communities came to be called, is a prime example of the kind of development that peopled Fairfax in its first 50 years of suburban growth -- a period of ample lots and detached homes. When its demolition is complete, this piece of Washington's suburban history will have been erased. Planners say it's a harbinger for the Washington area's largest and most populous jurisdiction as land runs out and developers seek to convert older neighborhoods to more profitable use.
One by one, 88 of the 100 homeowners in DixCenGato sold out earlier this summer to Centex Homes, a national home builder. The lots, most ranging in size from a half-acre to an acre, went in some cases for as much as $500,000.
While the total acreage doesn't approach that of huge area farms that have been developed, and the number of people moving pales beside the 20,000 residents expelled from Southwest Washington for urban renewal in the 1950s, Fairfax County officials believe this is the largest number of individual properties ever assembled in the region.
On the 80-plus-acre site will eventually rise more than 1,000 townhouses and apartments and a handful of detached houses, densely packed onto new streets. It will be one big development, with one new name, Fair Chase.
"You'll see more and more of this in Fairfax County because we have no major developable parcels [of vacant land] left," said Jim Todd, president of Petersen Cos., the developer of Fair Lakes and Fairfax Corner.
Washington's inner suburbs are ripe for major change, said Michael Pawlukiewicz of the Urban Land Institute. "In the next 20 years, we're going to have a million more people here," he said. "But where are they going to go? Hopefully places will be densifying, so we won't have so much sprawl and we won't be so auto- dependent."
The houses of DixCenGato have been living on borrowed time since around 1982, when Fairfax County decided to build its government center immediately to the east of them. Lee Highway had always been their southern border, and soon Interstate 66 and Fair Oaks Mall became their northern flank. With the new government complex about to pin them down on the east, and the county refuse-transfer station and animal shelter to the west, the neighborhoods and their large wooded lots became either an oasis or an anomaly in the era of "smart growth."
Centex spent more than two years negotiating to buy the properties for about $36 million overall, but its success followed about 15 years of DixCenGato homeowners fighting and negotiating with a succession of developer hopefuls.
As a tug-of-war played out for years between those who wanted to sell and those who wanted to stay -- or who wanted more money or less-dense development -- DixCenGato ended up a "battleground," said one key negotiator.
"The neighborhood was in turmoil big-time near the end, almost to the point of fistfights," said broker Jack Griffin of Re/Max Preferred Properties in Vienna. While one county official said Centex's ability to succeed where three other developers had failed was a "coup," one homeowner sees what happened as "a hostile takeover."
"It was obvious in the beginning that this neighborhood did not want to go," said Re/Max Preferred agent J. Roger Lindsey, who spent six years trying to put the deal together. Residents, he said, were not convinced in the beginning that change was headed their way.
"But when development started all around DixCenGato and their wells started to dry up, a majority decided they wanted to sell," said Lindsey.
The first attempt at a sale failed when the real estate market collapsed in the late '80s. As time went by, DixCenGato "was cut off and left out," as development spread along Route 29, Route 50 and I- 66, said Lindsey. "The really smart people moved out and rented their houses and just waited for the time to come."
DixCenGato's ending began in 1978 when a citizens task force first recommended that Fairfax County put its government center on 183 acres available next door. The task force warned that big parcels of undeveloped land were disappearing fast.
It took years for the center to be built -- there was vehement opposition to its cost and scope -- but the task force's recommendation converged in 1982 with a county decision to create a 5,300-acre special development district around the new government center to be called Fairfax Center. DixCenGato was right in the middle of it.
The intent was to focus growth, rather than allow piecemeal development or encourage the sprawl that was fast eating up Northern Virginia. Those two decisions helped seal DixCenGato's fate, say county officials and planners.
As developers filled in the blanks of Fairfax Center, DixCenGato was surrounded.
Most of the 100 families waved off the first developers who came calling in the mid-'80s.
"Some people really thought it would never happen," said Janice Himmelman, a DixCenGato homeowner for 30 years who has decided not to sell. Himmelman, 72, is among a handful of residents who also believe that the county didn't adequately protect them from development. "But some of us who had been here a long time knew it could," she said.
In fact, according to the county and some residents, many homeowners changed their tune a long time ago -- in the late '80s -- after they saw the details of the county's plan for Fairfax Center.
The plan, a joint arrangement with the Artery Organization Partnership and Charles E. Smith Cos., called for six times the development originally anticipated for a government complex, according to some former neighborhood association leaders.
A hotel, twin office towers, townhouses and apartments were to be built, along with a massive five-story government building.
According to some old-timers, 95 percent of the residents agreed to sell when they saw those plans. They were motivated in part by high offers from Artery that were based on using the land for expensive office rentals.
That's when the real estate market collapsed. The county wound up buying out its partners and taking over the two office towers. The hotel never happened.
That's also when Artery withdrew the first consolidation offer to DixCenGato homeowners.
However, a key planning change had been made: The homeowners association had agreed to seek commercial rezoning so owners could sell their land for the highest dollar to Artery.
Since 1991, when the county center finally opened, three other master plan amendments further increased DixCenGato's potential density, according to county officials.
The neighborhoods belong to the district of Supervisor Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield), who had watched the first attempt by Artery crash and burn.
McConnell laments the emotional toll on the owners: "It certainly wasn't easy on them." But she said Centex's bid includes "tremendous" benefits for the county. The developer's $12 million in proffers includes 13.5 acres of land for an elementary school, $540,000 to build two ball fields at another location and $900,000 in road improvements. The developer also agreed to protect an old Civil War railroad bed.
The supervisor said it was also long clear that DixCenGato didn't fit the county's design.
"For a while people thought of DixCenGato like a Shangri-La," said Re/Max agent Lindsey. "It has those huge trees and big lots that people love."
But, Lindsey continued, some "could see that something was going to happen eventually, so they moved out and rented their houses. Property owners started to put off maintenance projects as people waited for a consolidation to happen."
After Artery and before Centex, big builders Toll Brothers Inc., KSI Services Inc. and Winchester Homes were among those that tried to make the numbers work, according to Lindsey.
Lindsey was invited in six years ago by six DixCenGato owners. His first job was to win over a developer. When he started, the real estate market was just beginning to rebound.
Three years ago, though, the market was red-hot. That's when Centex showed up.
Lindsey and his broker, Jack Griffin, began going door to door in earnest, soliciting new sellers while trying to hold on to those who'd agreed to earlier developers' offers.
Centex had two people constantly negotiating, too. The magic number for the project to move ahead was set by the county. Centex needed signatures representing 85 percent of the 80 acres.
Among the holdouts, say consolidation supporters, was a group of about 25 owners.
This group had always insisted, said Himmelman, that the community as a whole had to be negotiated with in any deal, in order to get equitable prices for all.
Himmelman and her immediate neighbors were taken aback last year to find out the group had changed sides.
While leaders of that bloc declined to comment or did not return phone calls, lawyer Frank McDermott of Hunton & Williams, who represented Centex in the negotiations, said key players in the group agreed to back consolidation after winning unprecedented concessions from the developer, such as allowing them to rezone their properties even if they didn't sell, so the commercial value of the properties would remain intact.
Homeowner Barbara Booze, one of the 12 property owners who didn't sell, claims the consolidation "was more like a hostile takeover." She says some neighbors "were taken advantage of. Some were intimidated into selling."
Booze and longtime immediate neighbors Himmelman and Joyce Kubitz, 73, all three of whom plan to stay, say they believe Centex and Lindsey manipulated people into selling by saying they had more contracts than they really had.
Centex and Lindsey say their offers were fair and deny that owners were intimidated. Instead, they suggest that some just held out too long.
"There's an old saying, 'If you hold out, you get left out,' " said Lindsey.
Centex and Lindsey also say that the concept of negotiating with the citizens association as a whole was an idea that died when the Artery Organization's efforts to get a deal that way failed in the late 1980s.
As more people signed on with Centex, some neighbors stopped talking to one another, said Himmelman. "The past three years have been really strained," said Kubitz.
After the death of her husband, a minister, Himmelman said she is glad to be staying next to Booze and Kubitz in an area "where I know everybody." The new development will just zig-zag around her and her neighbors.
"There is no way our property value will be eroded," she said, because of county assurances that the property can quickly be rezoned for townhouses or apartments.
Though the process is nearly over, residents remain split over DixCenGato's end. As Lindsey says, "There are 97 owners and they have 97 stories."
"I was probably almost the first one to sign a contract to sell," said Alexandre DeParis, an owner since 1982. "I want to go."
DeParis, owner of a salon and spa in Fair Lakes, said his house is outdated and too small. Plus it has an aging septic system that would be expensive to replace. The community never paid to hook into sewer service as the land developed around it. He got $490,000 for his house and pool and $280,000 for a rental house next door.
Carol Herring, 60, said she and her husband were offered a contract on the house they bought in 1986, but they countered it. When four of her neighbors either didn't sign or weren't included, she said Centex simply left her out.
"I get mad every time I see the surveyors," said Herring. "I never realized that the land could be consolidated and that they wouldn't buy all the houses."
Tony Rudzinski, 84, who came to Washington in 1965, is looking forward now to moving back to the kind of lifestyle DixCenGato once offered.
Rudzinski and his wife, Connie, were the first to buy in Centennial Hills and raised four kids there.
"When I moved here, people said, 'What in the hell are you doing way out there?' It was just pastures here. We had cows grazing in our back yard."
Rudzinski is using his $485,000 to build on a 3 1/2-acre parcel in Warrenton, about 25 miles down the road.
Construction of the new Fair Chase community will begin "next spring at the earliest," said Stephen L. Fritz, vice president of strategic marketing and land for Centex Homes' Washington area division.
Those who own the 88 houses can stay until Sept. 30. Renters, who accounted for about 20 percent of the houses, had to be out by July 1.
But the community is trying to maintain the mowing and yard work until the end, partly out of pride and partly to keep the place from being vandalized.
Homeowners have the right to take whatever they want with them, including the whole house, the plants, the trees and the tire swings. One family has already removed new kitchen appliances, the front door and the windows -- including the frames -- for use in their next house.
Floyd Taylor, 55, a recent widower, is looking for a national park to relocate a prized cedar tree. He's not nostalgic or upset.
"I got a ridiculously high price," he said, with a grin.
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